Cara/Andrea here, It’s not that I’m feeling in a bellicose state of mind—my choice of topic today has been sparked my re-reading of Waterloo, one of the books in the wonderful Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. The epic battle’s anniversary is later this month, and as we all know, that clash of grand armies with its flashing sabers, whizzing bullets, booming cannons and choking clouds of gunpowder, was a turning point in European history.
Richard Sharpe, the hero of Cornwell’s novels, is a rifleman, which set him apart from the regular British foot soldier, who was equipped with a musket. And what, you might ask, is the bloody difference between the two weapons? Both shoot bullets with lethal effect, right? Well, not quite, as I learned when I decided to do a little research into what made the “Green Jackets” (the special rifle units wore green to distinguish them from the Red-coated regulars) of the Wellington’s army such a feared fighting force.
To begin with, we need to understand a few simple concepts about the inside of a gun barrel. So allow me to spin out a few facts. A smooth bore weapon, like the famed Brown Bess musket—which was standard British Army issue for over 120 years—is exactly what the name implies. The inside of the barrel is a smooth cylinder, which makes it relatively easy and quick to thrust a bullet and powder down its length with a ramrod. This smoothness also keeps powder residue from building up inside the weapon too quickly, allowing it to be fired repeatedly before it needs to be cleaned—a rather large plus in the heat of battle.
There are, however, drawbacks. It’s been estimated that during the 1700s, few than one percent of all musket balls fired found their target. Or, in the words of a British colonel, “At two hundred yards with a common musket, one might as well be firing at the moon.” That’s because a musket ball (it is round, which we will see in a minute is important) has to fit rather loosely in order to be rammed down the barrel. This is called windage, and it means that when the ball comes out, propelled by the tiny explosion of gunpowder, it knocks around a bit against the smooth steel, and thus its aim can be wildly inaccurate. That’s all very well when facing an opposing line of soldiers who are only ten or twenty yards away. However, at any greater distance, things become more dicey.
In contrast, the inside of a rifle barrel has . . .well, rifling. This term refers to a series of grooves cut into the inside of the barrel, which twist in a continuous direction. These grooves impart a spin to a projectile fired out of the weapon. Spin helps counteract the tendency to wobble and bob as an object flies through the air (imagine a gyroscope and how its spinning force makes it more stable) thus making it more likely to maintain an stable path. In a nutshell, (or cartridge wrapping) a rifle is a far more accurate weapon than a musket.
Rifling was known as far back as the 1400’s, and was used in hunting guns. (In his highly entertaining book, Gunpowder, Jack Kelley tells an amusing story on the early explanation for why these early rifles were more lethal than smoothbore guns. A Bavarian necromancer named Moretius theorized that the flight of bullets was controlled by spirits, or imps, who took delight in frustrating shooters. A rifled bullet went straight because no demon could ride astride a spinning projectile. This theory was backed up, claimed Moretius, by the fact that the spinning heavens were free of demons, while the stationery Earth was crowded with them.
An interesting theory. However, a Quaker Englishman named Benjamin Robins came up with far more scientific observations on ballistics in the mid-1700s. He determined that a round ball is subject to far more “drag” as it flies through the air, and thus loses speed and accuracy very quickly. (The loss of velocity also makes it less likely to kill an opponent, a fact which interested the Army.) A pointed projectile is far more aerodynamic. But as that wasn’t technically practical at the time (modern bullets are all cone-shaped for this reason) he pointed out that rifling at least improved the effectiveness of a gun, and predicted that any nation who fought with rifled weapons would have a huge advantage.
It certainly made technical sense. And yet, there were also significant drawbacks. As I mentioned, a smoothbore musket was easily and quickly loaded—a skilled soldier could fire a shot every 12 seconds. Loading a rifle took more time and effort because to tale on the spin from the grooves, the bullet had to be a touch larger that the gun barrel, so the compression of the lead would take on the minute grooves. This meant a rifleman had to laboriously hammer a bullet down the length of his weapon (small wooden hammers were part of his standard arsenal) and thus even a well-trained one could only fire 2 shots a minute as opposed to 5. The grooves of a rifle also collected residue far faster than a smooth barrel so had to be cleaned more frequently.
So despite Robins’s data, the rifle was deemed inefficient for army use. The British, however, experienced just how lethal its fire could be during the American Revolution. Many of the colonists hunted with rifled weapons—the accuracy of the Kentucky long rifle was legendary—and they turned their marksmanship on British troops with devastating effect. (The British complained vociferously that this sniping was unsporting, for the American didn’t stand in sitting duck battle lines, but fired from long range while hiding behind stone walls or trees, which allowed them to reload at the slower rate without suffering the consequences.)
The British surrendered the Colonies, but the lesson of rifle power was not lost on them. During the Napoleonic Wars, they began to develop special rifle companies (most notably the 95th Rifles and the 5th Battalion, 60th Regiment of Foot) which were deployed to great effect, especially in the Peninsular campaign. Riflemen were usually sent out as advance skirmishers, and their long range accuracy was used to disrupt the waiting enemy lines. A top priority was to pick off the opposing officers—it is said that Thomas Plunkett of the 95th Rifles killed French General Colbert from a distance of nearly 600 yards during the retreat to La Corunna.
After testing several models, the Baker rifle, designed in 1800 by a Whitechapel gunsmith named Ezekiel Baker, was the first standard issue British military rifle. For those of you who read the Sharpe novels, the Baker rifle will be a familiar name. It had a shorter barrel than a Brown Bess, making it a distinctive weapon. The stock had a small storage box built in it for the special cartridges, and it was equipped with a sword bayonet rather than the thin needle-shaped bayonet used on the Brown Bess musket.
Bonaparte dismissed the idea of rifles for his own armies, but in fact as well as fiction it proved an unwise decision. Richard Sharpe and his fellow riflemen wreak havoc on the French in Cornwell’s novels, and so did the real-life marksmen of the rifle regiments. The 95th Regiment served with distinction at the battle of Waterloo, and well, as they say., the rest is history.
So, are any of you fans of the Richard Sharpe novels? Which is your favorite book in the series. And have you watched the television version featuring Sean Bean? (fluttery sigh) I think he’s marvelous in the role, but let’s have a little fun—who else do you think would be a good Sharpe? I vote for Matthew MacFadyen.